Attachment theory suggests that early interactions with caregivers can dramatically affect your beliefs about yourself, your expectations of others, and how you cope with stress and regulate your emotions as an adult
In 2006, a team of Norwegian researchers set out to study how experienced psychotherapists help people to change. Led by Michael Rønnestad, a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Oslo, the team followed 50 therapist-patient pairs, tracking, in minute detail, what the therapists did that made them so effective. Margrethe Halvorsen, a post-doc at the time, was given the job of interviewing the patients at the end of the treatment.
That’s how she met Cora – a woman in her late 40s, single, childless, easy to like. As a kid, Cora (a pseudonym) had suffered repeated sexual abuse at the hands of her mother and her mother’s friends. Before entering therapy, she habitually self-harmed. She’d tried to kill herself a number of times, too, her body still scarred by the remnants of suicides not carried through.
“Her story was in the room,” Halvorsen tells me, then grows quiet as she stumbles to convey the strong impression that Cora left on her. Seven years after they met, it’s still hard to articulate: “Maybe presence is the right word.”
It was the way that Cora spoke of the atrocities done to her – in a steady voice, with clear eyes – that made the researcher wonder how someone so scarred could seem so alive, and undiminished.
At one point during their interview, when Halvorsen asked Cora to describe her therapy in a picture or a word, she’d blurted out: “It saved my life.” Intrigued, she invited three fellow psychologists to help her delve deeper into Cora’s case and uncover what had happened in the therapy room.
“We didn’t know what we were getting into,” Halvorsen told me. Following initial interviews with both Cora and her therapist, the researchers ploughed through a total of 242 summary notes that the two had written after each session over the course of the three-year study. From this data, the team selected and transcribed verbatim 25 sessions that seemed particularly important. The final material approached 500 pages of single-spaced text. Halvorsen and her colleagues puzzled over it for more than two years in a bid to understand what, exactly, had saved Cora’s life.[…]